A new report sponsored by the United Nations World Health Organization and child-welfare charities like Save the Children says more than one in 10 babies worldwide is born prematurely and says the issue of preterm births is "overlooked and neglected" worldwide.
Dr. Lale Say, a coordinator for the WHO's reproductive-health programs, says the report, titled "Born Too Soon," found that millions of children each year are born preterm, or before completing a full 38 weeks of gestation.
"The report found out that every year an estimated 15 million preterm births are happening worldwide and a little more than 1 million children die every year due to complications from preterm births," Say says.
India, China, and Pakistan top the list of countries with the highest rates of preterm births. In Pakistan, nearly 16 out of every 100 babies are born early, a figure that amounts to more than 748,000 premature births each year.
Belarus, by contrast, ranked among the countries with the lowest rates of preterm births, with just 4.1 babies out of every 100 born early. That figure puts Belarus on a par with high-income countries like Japan, Sweden, and Estonia.
Say notes that preterm births, unlike other types of health issues, is a problem in poor and rich countries alike.
"In developing countries, basically the main risks or causes are infections like HIV, malaria, sexually transmitted infections like syphilis, or short birth intervals, young age of pregnancy or birth, or low nutrition," she says.
In developed countries, a rise in premature births is tied to the number of older women having babies and the increased use of fertility drugs that result in multiple pregnancies, often prompting earlier births.
Two high-income countries, the United States and Brazil, both rank among the top 10 countries with the highest number of preterm births. In the United States, nine out of every 100 babies are born prematurely.
The report calls preterm births an "unrecognized killer," saying 1.1 million premature babies die each year within the first four weeks of their life, most in low-income countries.
But many of the deaths are considered preventable. Say argues that even basic changes to maternal and neonatal health care could help save hundreds of thousands of preterm babies.
"Three-fourths of all deaths due to preterm births can be prevented by feasible cost-effective interventions like keeping the baby warm, supporting breast feeding, and basic care for cord infections and breathing difficulties, which do not require intensive care units or intensive care technologies but only basic technologies," she says.
Such measures could also help the preterm babies who survive infancy but who often go on to suffer long-term physical and educational disabilities as a result of early birth
With reporting by dpa, Reuters, and AP